Human rights Opinion

Transgender or not, athletes share a common identity

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Lia Thomas (left) has become a controversial sports figure after outrage expressed by fellow swimmer, Riley Gaines (Screenshot via YouTube)

A feud between two competition swimmers has sparked a debate over the inclusion of transgender athletes in gender-specific sport, writes Zayda Dollie.

AMERICAN SWIMMER Lia Thomas, born William Thomas, stands at 185cm tall. The height does indeed leave a lasting impression when Thomas stands on a woman’s podium and towers over the other female competitors.

Thomas, however, looks much like all swimmers — broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, toned and athletic in shape. With the exception of her height, Thomas is unremarkable compared to most other swimmers.

Fellow American swimmer Riley Gaines stands next to Lia Thomas in a now well-documented photo of Thomas receiving a trophy that Gaines claims should have been hers.

Gaines, roughly a foot shorter than Thomas, looks exactly like what she is and professes to be — an all-American female champion swimmer. She is blonde, blue-eyed, tanned, athletic and smiles in pictures. Not only does she look good in front of a camera, she can talk in front of one, too and has – in the year since that photo was taken – done just that, in every way she can.

Gaines has appeared on network television in the U.S., held podium speeches at university events and founded an online petition — all in the name of speaking out against what she describes as “sex discrimination” in sport. The reason for it all is Lia Thomas.

In February 2022, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships were held in Atlanta.

In order to understand the context of the contentious feud between two university swimmers, it is imperative to understand the way college-level sports work in the USA.

The NCAA is the governing body of college sports in the USA. Over 1,100 schools (meaning colleges and universities) across the country (and a few in Canada and Puerto Rico) are affiliated with the organisation. Across these schools, a total of half a million college athletes make up the 19,917 teams that belong to the NCAA.

The NCAA awards up to US$3.5 billion (AU$5.3 billion) in sports scholarships every year to athlete students — as one can imagine, the journey to even get into an NCAA school is already one that is fraught with competition.

The NCAA holds 90 national championships in 24 sports each year — 45 of those championships are for women, 42 are for men and three of them are co-ed. According to their website, almost 54,000 students compete in the NCAA championships each year.

An NCAA championship trophy is touted by the organisation as being ‘iconic’. According to their website, an NCAA trophy is ‘a college athlete’s most desired weight to lift at the end of the season’. There are 90 first-prize trophies carved each year and 15,000 smaller versions of them, which are distributed to those lucky enough to find themselves on a podium.

Outside of the U.S., it is difficult to imagine that an NCAA championship could be considered a “big deal”. To illustrate its magnitude, the NCAA has broadcasting partnerships with five television channels including CBS and ESPN. The championships are not only broadcast but streamed live online.

Last year, when the NCAA Championship for swimming was held in Atlanta, both Lia Thomas and Riley Gaines were set to compete. Thomas was there representing the University of Pennsylvania. Thomas was a freestyle swimmer, who had been competing for Pennsylvania since 2017.

What would later be captured by the media and brought to light numerous times by rival swimmer Gaines, is that Thomas competed for three years in the men’s team. According to a page on Gaines’ website (which has since been taken down), Thomas was only an “average” swimmer on the men’s team and for three years competed without much success.

Riley Gaines was at the championship competing for the University of Kentucky. Unlike Thomas, Gaines had notable success in the pool from as early as she had begun competing.

Starting at age six and still competing at a junior level in 2020, Gaines had already won several national titles as a youth and three in that year alone. In 2019, she competed internationally at a junior championship held in Hungary where she won gold in the 100-metre freestyle and bronze in the 50-metre freestyle. She had set records for her university in the 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle, the 200-yard medley relay, the 400-yard freestyle relay and the 800-yard freestyle relay.

In 2021, a year before Gaines would face Thomas in the pool, she had come second together with her team in the 800-yard freestyle medley. In the 200-yard freestyle, she had placed seventh.

During this time, Thomas had been undergoing hormone therapy after deciding to transition in 2019. By the end of 2021, Thomas made a second transition — this time to the competitive world of women’s swimming. She competed for the first time on her university’s women’s team at the Zippy Invitational — a four-day swimming tournament hosted by the University of Akron, which sells tickets to the public and streams live online.

Lia Thomas not only won three races at that tournament but set national records in two of them. She swam the fastest times in the country for the women’s 200-yard freestyle and the 500-yard freestyle.

To be clear, these were not Thomas’ personal best times. She had clocked faster times while swimming on the men’s team, but those times were not record-breaking. While the difference in competition – once having competed against men and now competing against other women – is no doubt a contributing factor to Thomas’ success in the pool, she was still swimming slower than she previously had.

At the time, the NCAA had a policy on transgender participation, which stipulated that a transgender athlete was only eligible to compete on a women’s team after ‘completing one calendar year of testosterone suppression treatment’. Thomas had by this stage been on hormone therapy for over two years and spoke later in a televised interview about how this led to physical changes, such as diminished muscle mass and strength.

Although, in this way, hormone therapy may have disadvantaged Thomas physically as an athlete, she says that she was happier overall and that being happier helped her swimming.

Thomas’ debut as a female competitive swimmer and her impressive performance at the Zippy Invitational brought about both celebration and controversy for Thomas. The duality of being applauded and derided for the very same reason is something that would follow Thomas for the duration of her college swimming career and continues now to accompany her in news headlines.

From her debut up until the NCAA Championship in Atlanta, Thomas continued to compete on the women’s swim team, once on home ground at her university and once at Harvard. Parents of student athletes had begun complaining to the NCAA about Thomas having an unfair advantage. Several prominent former Olympic athletes also spoke out against the possible unfairness that transgender athletes could present to female swimmers.

Historically, swimming has produced more Olympic medallists for the USA than any other sport. College athletes generally make up the majority of the American Olympic swim team — at the 2016 Olympic Games, the U.S. swim team was made up of 64 college swimmers. NCAA swimmers and championship winners hold a great deal of importance to the nation.

By March there was no consensus on the rules around transgender athletes competing at college-level events but Thomas was deemed eligible and NCAA would not change its testosterone-level requirement to meet Olympic standard testing, which stipulated three years of hormone suppression treatment rather than just one. As such, Thomas was allowed to compete and broke no rules in doing so at the time.

Thomas won the 500-yard freestyle event. Although Thomas was not the first-ever college athlete to identify as transgender and not even the first athlete to have switched male/female teams after transitioning, winning this event made her the first-ever transgender athlete to win a national championship title.

In the 200-yard freestyle event, Lia Thomas tied in fifth place with Riley Gaines. After the event, when the athletes were asked to stand on the podium and receive their trophies, Gaines said that although she had tied with Thomas, she was told that Thomas would be the one to hold the trophy. Gaines says that she was reassured that she would later receive a trophy, but that Thomas would be handed the trophy in front of cameras and spectators.

In the days after the event, Gaines was reserved in her critique yet still vocal that she was upset at how the swimming event had played out. She described not receiving a trophy as disheartening, saying that she felt the NCAA had prioritised transgender athletes over other female swimmers. Of Thomas, she said, “I am in full support of her and full support of her transition and her swimming career...”. The problem, she said, was with the NCAA rules that were in place.

As time went on and Thomas received more and more media coverage, Gaines seemed to grow increasingly incensed over the event and the celebration of Thomas as a transgender athlete.

In July later that year, Gaines was nominated by her university for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. When the full list of nominees was released and Gaines saw that Lia Thomas had also been nominated, she spoke out saying that Thomas’ nomination “totally devalued the award for me” and that the nomination of a transgender athlete was a “slap in the face” to the other female contenders.

Gaines’ commentary on Thomas became more inflammatory as time went on.

Of the women having to compete against transgender athletes for spots on a team or awards, Gaines said at the time:

“This is looking at them and telling them they don’t matter. They are simply there to make sure this biological man gets their awards, gets their respect and gets validation from them.”

Shortly after the championship in Atlanta, Gaines had given an interview, in which she explained that because it was a women’s swimming championship, only women’s change rooms had been available and as such, Thomas had had no choice but to share the space.

Later, Gaines spoke about the incident of sharing a change room with Thomas as violating and inappropriate:

“But you have someone with male genitalia pulling his pants down, watching you as you undress. It throws you off.”

Gaines has since graduated from college, but has stated that she sees it as her life’s purpose to advocate for the women being disadvantaged by the inclusion of transgender athletes.

Shortly after winning, Thomas was interviewed on national television and told her interviewer and American audiences that she did not transition to gain an advantage, but rather she transitioned to be happy. On the decision to compete on the women’s swim team, Thomas emphasised that not only was her identity tied to her gender but that her identity was very much shaped by the fact that she saw herself as a swimmer.

Competitive swimming, in the U.S. as well as in Australia, is a demanding sport. It often requires early-morning training on weekdays as well as travel on weekends to swim meets and tournaments. A competitive squad swimmer will often have a training schedule that can only be adhered to with the support of parents and family members willing to sacrifice their own time and finances.

On the NCAA website, it is stated:

‘Nearly 8 million students currently participate in high school athletics in the United States. Only about 500,000 compete as NCAA athletes and a select few within each sport move on to compete at the professional or Olympic level.’

According to a study conducted by the NCAA, 70 per cent of their student-athletes said their families expected them to be college athletes growing up and 30 per cent said their families expected them to be a professional or Olympian. Further, many shared that their family had relocated in the hopes of increasing their chances of fulfilling this goal.

The pressure placed on the shoulders of athletes from childhood, through high school and eventually through to college, is enormous. It is little wonder, then, that young athletes will fight for their chance at success in their chosen sport — they have, in all likelihood, been fighting for it their whole lives.

Although Riley Gaines continues to make headlines for her inflammatory remarks toward transgender athletes and it would appear that she and Lia Thomas are on opposite sides of the debate, the two are in fact united in their commitment to their sport. Identifying as an athlete and wanting the right to compete is something they share.

The bitter irony of the controversy around including or excluding transgender athletes from female sports is that each of those individuals it affects identifies first and foremost as an athlete. It is an identity that sets them apart from the wider population, but one they have in common with each other.

Zayda Dollie is a sports journalist who believes in athlete story-telling, the redemptive power of sport and having female voices heard.

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